HTS intensifies security crackdown in northwest Syria in a bid to consolidate rule

HTS intensifies security crackdown in northwest Syria in a bid to consolidate rule
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, has cracked down on rival jihadists as it tries to rebrand as a pragmatic actor.
3 min read
26 May, 2023
HTS, led by Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani (pictured) has eliminated its rivals through a combination of negotiation, arrests, repression and military force.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda offshoot which controls northwest Syria, arrested a prominent french Jihadist on Thursday as part of a greater crackdown against opposition elements in the area.

Abu al-Siddiq, a member of Al-Ghurabah, a group of French jihadists living in northwest Syria close to the Turkish border, was arrested by HTS while he was shopping.

The arrest comes off the back of a series of raids and arrests conducted by HTS in what analysts are calling a bid to quash dissent and consolidate the group’s domination in the last rebel-held pocket of Syria.

On 7 May, HTS detained 18 people from rival group Hizb al-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation that seeks the return of the caliphate.

“Hizb al-Tahrir accuses HTS of colluding with international intelligence. To deal with this, [they] launched peaceful protests against HTS. As these demonstrations continued to grow, HTS decided to intervene,” Orwa Ajoub, a senior analyst at COAR Global, told The New Arab.

The arrests prompted protests, which HTS security forces broke up, resulting in firefights between the demonstrators and security officers.

On 24 May, al-Ghuribah released the first in a series of videos which accused HTS of “betraying the Syrian people and the mujahideen” for what it said were false claims made against it by the group.

The day after the first video was published, al-Siddiq was arrested by HTS.

HTS has historically tolerated the presence of foreign jihadists in northwest Syria, setting out conditions for them to continue to exist and operate in the area.

Foreign jihadists can dissolve their militias and be absorbed by HTS’s military wing, or they can commit themselves to giving up militant activities.

In either case, foreign jihadists, as is the case with all groups active in northwest Syria, must not challenge HTS’s authority, Ajoub explained.

In the past, organisations such as al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras al-Din, were brought to heel by HTS via a combination of arrests and military operations.

HTS’s tolerance for groups which espouse radical ideologies like Hizb al-Tahrir, is likely to wane as it seeks to portray itself as the sole responsible actor in northwest Syria.

“As HTS continues to distance itself from global jihadism, it is likely to persistently crack down on any group endorsing a transnational ideology,” Ajoub said.

This has led them to be particularly harsh on foreign jihadist groups like al-Ghurabah, the leader of which it arrested in 2020 and forced to promise not to recruit any more French fighters.

HTS has already renounced its previous goal of establishing a caliphate, and said that it has no political or military ambitions outside of Syria.

The group’s desire to be seen as a pragmatic actor, rather than a jihadist group, has accelerated as neighbouring states such as Turkey flirt with normalising with the Syrian regime.

“[HTS] presents itself as an actor able to exercise local governance, provide security and pragmatically engage with regional and other outside powers,” a March report by the International Crisis Group said.

Despite HTS’s efforts to rebrand itself, countries such as the US and Turkey still classify it as a terrorist group.